"Ladies, we need it quiet in here."
The monitor's warning rescued Orange County Superior Court Judge Judith Ryan, who had momentarily lost her audience. Keynote speaker for Thursday's "Expanding Your Horizons: Women in Science and Mathematics" conference at UC Irvine, Ryan was discussing career options for women. In the audience of 350, feet had started wiggling, notes were being passed and whispering had grown to a quiet roar.
Perhaps it was inevitable. In an effort to explain future work conditions, Ryan had been detailing the litigation and rights women have won since the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But her listeners may not have understood the word "litigant." Moreover, to them, this was prehistory. Most hadn't been born until after 1970.
The restlessness was shown by the younger half of the 750 Orange County junior and senior high school students who attended the seventh annual career conference. It didn't seem to faze Ryan, the other 14 women speakers or the conference organizers. "Considering their age and numbers, it's to be expected," explained Carol Stanley, senior academic counselor for UCI's program in social ecology and one of the conference coordinators. "Every year we have to tell them once or twice to knock it off."
One of the conference's goals is to familiarize students with a college atmosphere, she said. Another is to encourage them to identify with female professionals in atypical jobs simply by seeing women with titles generally associated with men. For example, among the other speakers were a psychologist, a criminalist, a park ranger, a stockbroker and the assistant supervisor of the UCI nuclear reactor facility.
Stanley said she hopes that watching these professionals and hearing their stories will encourage the young women to be less awed by careers based on math or science, to keep their career options open and to become aware of problems they may face. She be lieves those messages get through, despite waning student attention.
The first math-science career conference for girls 12 to 18 years old was held in 1976 at Mills College in Oakland by the Math-Science Network, a group of educators, scientists, parents and civic leaders concerned about the under-representation of women in math and science courses and careers. Now the Network claims 1,200 members nationwide, and every spring more than 70 such conferences are held across the country. The local conference is sponsored by UCI, the American Assn. of University Women and Orange Coast College.
Two years ago, the popular conference attracted 2,800 participants to UCI. They were too many, said Stanley, and the conference was scaled down.
Labor trends indicate young women can now expect to work full time as adults. Most are still entering female-dominated professions such as secretary, elementary school teacher and nurse. But with higher levels of education, more women are expected to enter the increasing number of better-paying jobs in science and technology, according to Alta Yetter, a labor market analyst for the California Employment Development Department in Santa Ana.
The University of California requires at least four years of math and science and the state college system at least two years, Stanley said. "If kids get on a non-college bound track or don't take the type of math or science the colleges and universities require, they're basically closing the doors."
Recognizing their personal stories may not apply to young women today, some speakers described career struggles marked by discouragement and discrimination. Some told of surprising career changes, others of finding a career after raising children.
Judge Ryan told the girls no one in her family had ever attended college. Twenty-five years ago, her high school counselors suggested if she went to college she should pursue teaching, nursing or, as a long shot, journalism. But she changed her college major from journalism to political science after being inspired by her law student boyfriend to become a lawyer herself. "My father thought I was crazy. He said, 'Women aren't lawyers.' "
Now, she said, women make up 15% of the Orange County judiciary. Showing how times have changed, she cited the achievements of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro and astronaut Sally Ride as well as those of women presidents of banks, publishing houses and other businesses.
Nevertheless, there are practical problems, she pointed out. In Orange County, women constitute 42% of the work force. Yet the majority are in clerical jobs, and there is enough child care for only a quarter of them, said Ryan, the mother of six.